Wednesday, 7 January 2009

"Defiance" - a historian's review

"Defiance" - "Our revenge is to live"

I had the honour of attending the European Premiere of "Defiance" last night in London's Leicester Square.

Daniel Craig's new film casts him as a fugitive Jew in 1941-42 in the forests of Byelorussia - the eldest of the famed Bielski brothers.

Alongside Tuvia Bielski (Craig), are the sullen and combative Jus (Liev Schreiber), the wide-eyed Asoel (Jamie Bell) and the young Aron (George MacKay). The four brothers leave their village after their family farm is ransacked and their parents are murdered by Byelorussian auxiliaries of the Nazis. Fleeing to the nearby forest, they embark on an odyssey in which many hundreds of Jews would be saved from the grim fate that Hitler had in store for them. It is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable stories of the Holocaust.
Hollywood has an uneasy relationship with history. Of course, historical dramas such as this make up much of its primary material, and the magic words "based on a true story", bestow instant kudos on many a film. Yet, the needs of the film-maker - clear moral messages, simple narratives, defined heroes and villains - are not always congruent with the complex and often messy and confusing realities of history.
One of my most common gripes with Hollywood representations of history, therefore, is that many film-makers feel that they need to dumb down to reach their audience, what you might call "lowest-common denominator film making". In the process, complex narratives are simplified beyond all recognition, characters are rendered two-dimensional, and foreign accents and (worst of all) subtitles are avoided like the plague. In such examples History - far from being the inspiration and the guiding light - becomes a whore to be used, abused and discarded when inconvenient.
I am delighted to say that "Defiance" does NOT fall into this category.
Though I have seen online that the film has come in for some occasionally vicious criticism - primarily from the afficionados of "whizz-Bang" film-making - for its supposed lack of 'action', I thought the film supremely well made. It was well-paced, well-told, and well-acted. Daniel Craig, sure, is a bit of a brooding one-trick-pony, but he played the lead tolerably well. Liev Schreiber, on the other hand, was a revelation, bringing just the right amount of menace and cussedness to his role as the bloodthirsty Jus.
Also, the predicament of the Bielskis was well drawn. Stuck between the horror of the Nazis and the equally repugnant (and anti-Semitic) forces of the Soviet partisan movement, the Bielskis were truly stuck between a murderous rock and an at best indifferent hard place.
In this regard, there is a whiff of historical controversy about the film - surrounding the alleged complicity of the Bielskis in the massacre of Polish peasants at Naliboki. This subject, naturally, is not dealt with in the film. Moreover, one criticism would be that the whole issue of the difficult relationship between the Bielskis and the local peasantry was rather skated over, being dealt with in one scene and not revisited. In fact, the Bielskis were almost entirely dependant on the local peasants for their food, and did not stop short of terrorising them - and even murdering them - into compliance.
Beyond that complaint - the film ticked all the necessary boxes. The cinematography, for example, was excellent. The opening scene where the grainy contemporary footage segued into grainy movie footage, and then into colour was inspired. And the later segment where the Jewish wedding of Asael was juxtaposed with Jus's attack on a German patrol was brilliantly handled.
Most of all however, I applaud the 'feel' of the film. I doesn't manipulate emotions with too much soaring score, and most importantly it does not baby the viewer. Germans speak German, Poles speak Polish, Russians speak Russian. That is how it was - there are subtitles - get over it. Moreover, though Craig's linguistic abilities were a little suspect, those of the remainder of the cast were excellent - especially Schreiber - and one has to consider that the two leads were required to speak Polish and Russian in many scenes. When one bears this in mind, the speech coaches employed on the movie deserve Oscars of their own.
All in all - 4 stars out of 5 - and the best WW2 film that I have seen since "The Pianist". If the forthcoming "Valkyrie" is anywhere near as good, I shall be delighted and a little surprised.

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